A prosthetic hand that provides sensory feedback is one of three projects to share £5.3m in funding to develop assistive and rehabilitative devices.
The funding, from EPSRC, will also see the development of robotic clothing to help people with walking, and biosensors to monitor how patients use equipment or exercise during rehabilitation.
The three projects start work in the spring and are led by the Universities of Newcastle, Bristol, and Warwick working with 15 other university partners.
In a statement, Philip Nelson, chief executive of EPSRC said: ‘These research studies will improve patients’ lives, allow greater independence and benefit patients with a wide range of mobility and co-ordination difficulties.
‘With the UK’s ageing population and a rise in disabilities, this highlights one area of EPSRC investment in healthcare research which has a national impact.’
A team led by Newcastle University will use £1.4m to develop a prosthetic hand that will give users a sense of feedback.
According to EPSRC, the team will build fingertip sensors to give the prosthesis a realistic sense of touch, including pressure, shear and temperature. In addition, a so-called ‘virtual hand’ will provide proprioceptive information related to the hand’s position and movement. The system will also translate the signals to a form the brain understands and stimulate the nervous system to help the user control the hand.
Building this level of feedback into prosthetic devices is expected to enable higher levels of function for people who have lost their limbs.
Bristol University is leading a research team in the development of soft robotic clothing to enable those with mobility impairments, disabilities and age-related weakness to move easily and unaided.
Designed to let people live independently and with dignity, the end results of the £2m study will be easy to use, comfortable, adaptable and meet the user’s individual mobility needs.
Smart trousers could help vulnerable people avoid falls by supporting them whilst walking, give people added bionic strength to move between sitting and standing positions, and help people climb stairs which were previously insurmountable.
This intelligent clothing or ‘second skin’ will use artificial ‘muscles’ made from smart materials and reactive polymers which are capable of exerting great forces. This will be developed using the latest wearable soft robotic, nanoscience, 3D fabrication, functional electrical stimulation and full-body monitoring technologies, all driven by the need of the end users, who will also be directly involved in the project.
They will include control systems that monitor the wearer and adapt to give the most suitable assistance, working with the body’s own muscles.
Finally, Warwick University will lead a team in the design and development of cheap, disposable, unobtrusive biosensors such as temporary tattoos and smart watches to use with patients who use wheelchairs or prosthetics, patients requiring rehabilitation, as well as older people.
The £1.86m study will collect data and monitor how patients use equipment provided to them, and also measure how they follow exercise advice at home such as after a stroke or accident. The research will also develop software that uses the biosensor information to support users with their equipment or exercises in their own home.
Currently there is no picture of what happens after a patient leaves the clinic. Anecdotally, poor use of equipment or not following physiotherapy guidance on exercise can lead to more complex health problems.
Christopher James, project lead, and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Warwick University said: ‘The new information we will gain from this research will be invaluable, and through a feasibility study, it is our aim to produce a system ready for future technical/clinical trials within the NHS.’